Pub Rants

Sounding Too Adult

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Status: I already know that tomorrow is going to be a 10 or 12 hour day.

What’s Playing on the XM or iPod right now? SILENT NIGHT By Nat King Cole

As the young adult genre continues to do well, it’s no surprise that a lot of authors who write for the adult market might want to try their hand at a YA novel. This evening I finished up a client manuscript and then read a couple of submissions.

Several of them were from authors looking to do just that. I passed on two of them because the writers hadn’t nailed the YA voice. It’s hard to pinpoint and clearly explain to the writer what exactly is off about the voice but ultimately, the character felt too experienced and capable in the story to be a teen.

In other words, the writer had imposed too much of an adult perspective into the narration. It’s a tough balance and all I can say is that for me as the reader, it just feels off or unconvincing. And it’s tough to correct because even a good critique reader might not be able to explain to the writer about how to fix it. I know that if I had to explain it to these two passes, I’d be hard pressed to give concrete feedback the writer would find helpful.

So if you are a writer looking to make that transition, be sure to read a lot in the YA genre and maybe even have a teen or teens on board as part of your critique group. After all, they would know best.


32 Responses

  1. Jan Markley said:

    It is a great idea to have some young readers critique a manuscript. I did that for the manuscript of my current middle grade novel and it’s amazing what they hone in on! They were dead on recognizing when the voice was too adult.

  2. Alyson said:

    I wonder if young adults then are able to write a more true-to-voice young adult novel. Although their actual writing may not be as practiced or particular as an adult author’s, it might be surprising. I’m continuously frustrated with adults trying their hand at resurrecting the teenager they remember being for their story, often times overlooking true shades of self-awareness that many young adults do posses.

  3. Becca C. said:

    I’m a teen writing for teens, and it’s funny because I have never had a problem with this! I’m really glad – I can understand how it would be difficult. I have read a lot of books where it was obvious the author had forgotten what it was like to be a teenager.

  4. Missed Periods said:

    I don’t know much about the YA genre, but when I think of novels that really captured a teen voice, I think of The Rachel Papers, by Martin Amis and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky.

  5. Ted Cross said:

    I’m running into this issue right now. I wrote my first novel as adult, but its prequel has two main characters who are young teens, so I need to authentically adjust the voice. I hope I can pull it off.

  6. Dawn Embers said:

    Great topic for this post. While I do have this problem sometimes, it’s only a small issue at the moment. I didn’t plan to write YA per say, but that is where one mutant series happens to fall.

    What has helped I think, for me, is that during the long two years it took to figure out how to write the first draft I was also volunteering at a drop-in center for teens. I spent 3 hours or so a week with them. Oddly, most thought I was one of the teens the whole time even though we had to be 21+ to volunteer. And lucky enough, they are the teens I’m writing about in the later book of the series because it was a center for glbtq teens.

    For others I think part of the issue I see is that people see it going well and think they should write a YA novel instead of writing it because that’s what the story/characters should be, which can make it tough. But it’s something that can be worked on if the problem can be pin pointed. I have to figure out some speech still since my MC probably wouldn’t say something is “neat”. Not a bad thing to fix compared to other potential manuscript killers.

  7. Jen Zeman said:

    Reading tons of YA novels is the best way to understand the YA voice. I’ve found it to be a huge help.

  8. Lyn Miller-Lachmann said:

    I had the opposite problem with the first draft of my adult novel–people said the 23-year-old narrator’s voice was “too YA.” That’s when I realized I needed to write YA.

    Now I have an idea for another adult novel, but having written three YAs–with one already published and successful–I worry about the steep learning curve to go back to adult fiction.

  9. Charlie said:

    Ha ha, I have the opposite problem–I [attempt to] write adult but come off sounding YA. Maybe I should make the switch, no? XD

  10. Jean Ann Williams said:

    Recently, I started a writer’s group after my move to a new state. One of the critiquers is a teen. I can not emphasize enough how valuable she has been to our work. I have made great strides in revamping my story because of her. And I tried not to take all her advice, but I knew she was spot on right.

  11. valleyofthemuse said:

    I’ve come across a similar issue in my critique group where an adult-geared story features a child and the dialogue or thoughts just don’t sound like any child I’ve ever met – they’re too wise, too precocious, too adult to be a believable 5 or 9-year old.

  12. Roberta Walker said:

    Tricky. What about the category “New Adult” that I’ve seen popping up lately in blogs and articles? The group of newly graduated college students who are just stepping out in life – naive yet definitely more experienced than your typical Teen. The voice would still be young, they would still use some of the slang/language they used in college, but a lot of the high school drama & angst might be gone. This is the audience I think I am writing for. (And wishing I was still that age.) 🙂

  13. Kathy said:

    I’ve had trouble finding critiquing for this issue. I don’t think I struggle with it that much, mostly because I spend a lot of time with teens volunteering at my church, read YA constantly, and am still young enough that I was a teen not too long ago. But I still wondering if I’m getting the voice right. I’ve come across a few books that the voices just don’t sound like teens. Instead they sound like mini adults masquerading as teenagers. It’s a hard thing to get right and do well.

  14. Melinda Szymanik said:

    My children are teens which helps enormously and yes I had some teens, male and female read my YA manuscript. Both gave the voice a thumbs up which was a great relief especially as not only is my main character from a different generation, he is also a different gender to me 🙂

    Not only is there a danger of having a teen think in a too adult way, there is also the temptation to try and be too teen, overcooking the dialogue and cultural references.

  15. jliann said:

    If they were good manuscripts though, wouldn’t you just take the client on with the stipulation that you’d market it as adult fiction instead of YA?

    I’m pretty sure that’s not a difficult mind-set to change.

  16. Anonymous said:

    I agree with Jiliann, a good manuscript is a good manuscript — surely.

    The other difficulty is that trying to dumb down with teenage slang becomes boring and trite. It has to be in the simplicity of expression and world view. Rowling used very little slang.

    Regarding language, the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test is a good start.

    Even so, If you’re writing for 14 plus, there are some *very* savvy kids out there.

  17. J. T. Shea said:

    I’ve thought a lot about this point, and I’m not sure there really is A YA voice. It depends who’s writing about whom and what and when and where. If it’s a present day American teen recounting his or her recent life, maybe. But, even then, teen voices vary just as much as children’s or adult’s.

    My WIP, for example, is set centuries in the future on a colony planet, in a society consciously, but inaccurately, modeled on 1930s New York City. The mistakes are part of the fun. Like his world, my young MC is less mature than a present day American teen in some ways, but more in others. For example, he is quite articulate, but not tremendously reflective. I write from the POV of that MC, a cub reporter, and his account is edited by his newspaper (though not to the point of falsification) and read and criticized by other characters at times.

    Though very different in many respects, TREASURE ISLAND is one of my influences, a novel clearly aimed at boys, as its famous opening poem declares, but which makes little concession to any notion of age-specific voice, and is clearly implied to have been written by Jim Hawkins years after the adventures he describes. Like that Jim, my MC (also called Jim) plays an important role in an expedition, but is also an observer/narrator of the doings of others, and is not the leader of the expedition.

    I will continue to classify my WIP as YA Steampunk, and it fits the category better than some, but I am really writing for children of all ages!

  18. Marie Force said:

    Interestingly, this is my daughter’s primary complaint with books written for teens. She is 15 and able to spot a fraud a mile away. She often says that books she reads should’ve been critiqued by someone her age so the author could be told they were way off with how kids REALLY talk these days. I offer her up to YA writers within my chapter. 🙂

  19. Anonymous said:

    Would you then suggeset that teen writer’s would be best at writing young adult novels, seeing as it’s their perspective that they’re writing from? I suppose not a lot of teens write decent books, but even still, I can hardly name three authors who are teens that have written YA books…

  20. David Tames said:

    Okay. Occasionally great YA books are coming out with great voice, but I see too many YA books with a YA voice that drivels off the page. Where have all the intelligent YA books gone? I’d love to see an end to books that mimic contemporary teenage thought processes. Because when they’re watered down, I think they actually do more harm than good. I know teenagers who won’t look at books like FEED or ENDER’S GAME and certainly not THE CATCHER IN THE RYE because they have become too accustomed to the dessert-like prose of this and that vampire academy or other YA paranormal/contemporary/etc.

    Which leads us to authors who know some teenagers who are still smart and write intelligent characters. I’d hate to see these manuscripts being passed over because they are ‘intelligent’ YA. I think the real question explores where the crossover begins between YA and adult fiction. Teen characters shouldn’t make adult decisions, but isn’t character behavior part of the fantasy, the fictional dream, that some characters will act in extraordinary ways? I don’t know many adults who would have acted like Horatio Hornblower, but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the most beloved characters of all time. And I don’t know of anyone who held up their finger and said, now wait a minute, this guy is just too smart, too brave for me to believe he’s an adult.

    This is part of what’s wrong with YA. Want YA voice? Add angst. But of course, angst is a cliché, too. But as much as agents pretend to eschew clichés, we still see them all the time. A friend of mine was at a writer’s conference where the agent just finished lecturing about how she passes on manuscripts with clichés. Then an hour later that agent read one of her author’s works. And guess what? Yup. Goosebumps ran down someone’s spine.

    Okay. Sorry for the rant. But, man…
    Otherwise, love the blog. Thanks for putting in the effort.

  21. Anonymous said:

    Could not agree more with David T. That’s exactly my sense of it.

    Ender’s Game is a great example of a sassy, clever, intelligent voice that is hardly YA in nature.

  22. Kimber An said:

    A lot of adults have trouble with understanding the difference between *intelligence* and *experience.* So, they’ll read a Young Adult novel and rip apart the protagonist because she’s, they say, *stupid* and a *wimp.* And then they decide to write a YA novel with a smart and capable heroine. And it bombs, and they can’t understand why.

    The cure? 1) Go read Young Adult fiction with an open heart and mind. 2) Hang out with real teens, but just sit there, keep your mouth shut, and just listen.

    If you don’t thoroughly *enjoy* doing those two things, then writing YA is not for you.

  23. David said:

    When I say intelligence, not only am I speaking about cliched decision making, weak prose, and knock knock dialogue, I’m also talking about overall plot structure.

    I know many adults who bomb at YA need to be around kids more, but as a teacher for the last decade, I’d say I’ve shut up around kids more than most people in this discussion.

    TANGERINE is a great YA book that allows the protagonist to be a teen while also managing to give the reader something more to chew on. THE OUTSIDERS is the same way. And students love these books.

    But too many books nowadays pale in comparison. Just yesterday I picked up a book a student was reading and I wanted to say, Oh my god, you’re reading this? But they don’t know the difference between quality and excrement. Because too many agents and authors have jumped the YA bandwagon, and are too busy shoveling it.

    I do know what Kristin means when she describes the problem of YA voice. That’s not my issue. My issue is with people who don’t understand what a YA book really is, and then try to write another sarcastic, angst-ridden, insipid story.

    That helps no one.

  24. Anne E. Johnson said:

    Thanks for the excellent topic. I find I am always struggling when I try for a YA voice, but a middle-grade voice comes naturally to me. I sometimes wonder whether that means a certain part of my world view stopped maturing at age 12…

  25. Anonymous said:

    Yeah, nobody wants to read about a hyper-capable teen who’s a crack shot with a bow and can take care of her family even in a collapsed, dystopian society. Why, she doesn’t even care about romance or girly things. Terrible teenage voice. That’ll never sell. (Re: Katniss, in The Hunger Games, of course.)

  26. Sara Flower said:

    I think another thing that might help is to put yourself a few years back to when you were a teen. Remember how you felt about certain things, what your fears were, what you didn’t understand, etc. and go from there. I’m still in my 20’s so I can remember a great deal of what it’s like being a teen.

  27. Anonymous said:

    Capable and experienced characters can be very attractive to those reading YA novels.

    For one thing, I come across far too many books where the young character is ridiculously bad at everything, speaks in monosyllabic words and lots of slang, or makes completely brain-dead mistakes without any reason. It just screams “adult trying to write teen”, and it distracts from the story. You know that the adult is probably one who thinks teens have poor vocabularies and don’t really enjoy reading or think about anything. It’s patronising.

    A capable and experienced character, even one bordering on Sueishness, can be good. At an age where you have increased responsibilities and new skills, and make lots of mistakes because of it, a character like that can provide some vicarious enjoyment if done properly.

  28. Alaina said:

    I had to actually rewrite half my manuscript to fit the New Adult catagory because my characters were too experienced for the YA arena. So I know what you mean. 🙂 Thankfully I caught it before I began a second draft, so I ended up with two first drafts, but anyway! Thanks

  29. RL Seward said:

    How does one identify racial groups when writing a historical fiction book for a YA audience? Blacks and Latinos in particular? I am wrioting a YA book set in WW2.